With the first flowers of spring, front gates in Charleston swing open to strangers
February/march 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 1
As for the houses themselves, the ones I’d always wanted to invade, they are remembered now as a sort of agreeable blur. More than the important flourishes—the sinuous turn of a staircase or the finely detailed wainscoting in a dining room—it is the personal touches that stay in mind: the sunny living room made even more cheerful by a riot of yellows and pinks on slipcovers, curtains, and walls; the outsize over-the-mantel portrait of a family’s youngest child (so many blonde, beautifully dressed little girls occupied this place of honor in so many houses that I began to wonder if boys were still being born in Charleston); the finely proportioned tables and highboys in the Chippendale or Queen Anne style, which turn out to have been made not by Thomas Elfe but by the owner’s father or grandfather.
I couldn’t help sneaking a look at a family’s snapshots or evaluating its reading tastes, and I marveled at a succession of dazzlingly up-to-date kitchens that didn’t even nod at the past. Only once or twice was an owner on hand, usually because a docent hadn’t turned up. Most of us felt a bit like intruders in their presence. So I can’t really promise that if you go on a house tour, you’ll be invited back for cocktails, but it’s the only way I know of, short of breaking and entering, to get past Charleston’s front door.